Story Shannon Bardwell | Photographs Luisa Porter
On a sunny fall afternoon, Joe MacGown and his son, Joseph, walked across a hand-paved patio past twig-crafted benches and a carved, painted totem pole to a small building.
The building is an art/music studio and, like the patio, benches, totem pole and rustic house nearby, was built by Joe. Some days father and son hole up here, in rural Oktibbeha County. Joe describes those days: They make music; they draw; and then without warning they’re out the door and running, hard and fast.
They run trails through dense forest and across open fields. “It’s nothing to run nine miles before returning home,” he says.
On a walk along the nature trail, Joe stops to describe himself: “I’m so chaotic. I’m just all over the place. I can’t sit still, and Joseph, well, he’s very Zen.”
Joseph, docile and self-deprecating, looks down at his bare feet and smiles. They continue walking until Joe stops mid-sentence and runs his hand over the bark of a tree; he breaks a twig and with his fingernail peels back the bark.
“See there,” he says, “the insect bores these little tunnels. It’s not here now, but it’s been here. This is the only kind of tree it inhabits. Isn’t that amazing?
“I can’t tell you how many visitors I’ve had here from all over the world. I found a new species of moth. It’s incredible what we have in our own backyards, if we’ll just look.”
Every day and in every way Joe’s world amazes him. He walks trails, “Not for inspiration but to collect images, like an image bank. Somehow, someway, while I’m working, the image will come back, maybe in some twisted, weird or grotesque form. Then it will take shape in intricate lines totally unrecognizable … maybe a wildflower, a piece of hickory bark or a broken fossil shell. I don’t know.”
Another side of Joe is the scientist, mostly self-taught. Joe is considered an expert entomologist.
He laughs: “Can you imagine? I’ve had one year of art school in Memphis. Afterwards I returned to Starkville and worked packing groceries at night. I heard about a temporary job at the Mississippi Entomological Museum, and I’ve been there 28 years now.”
It’s not hard to imagine at all. Joe is energetic, inquisitive and inventive; he has an insatiable desire to know things. He rattles off scientific names like a child recites a nursery rhyme.
“I don’t know why that is,” he says. “I can’t remember people’s names, but I remember Odontomachus haematodus.
“I grew up poor and lived over at the Pines Trailer Park; it was called something else back then. Behind the park were fields and woods and an old pond. My father showed me how to make a pen from a stick and some ink from crushed berries. I started drawing.”
And he didn’t stop. Sitting beside Joseph on a handmade bench, Joe crushes a green leaf and rubs it across paper, then a purple leaf. He reaches down for a nugget of clay, smears it across the page and a flower appears.
Joe has a gift, and in his hands nothing is ordinary.